What do spirit dragons, game designers, and Marty McFly have to do with Magic: The Gathering? We have no idea, but our own Doc Brown, Mike Eaton will surely explain. Gotta get back in time!
As they do every winter, those Wizards of the Coast have produced a new Magic: the Gathering set. And, though I haven’t been behind the scenes in a meeting, I know the plot of Fate Reforged, and I feel like I can guess how the planning went down:
DESIGNER 1: This is the 2015 set, you guys. We have no other choice. We’re doing Back to the Future Part II.
DESIGNER 2: So like, hoverboards?
DESIGNER 2: What? No.
DESIGNER 3: Alternate evil casino world?
DESIGNER 1: Closer! I speak of course . . . of time-travel.
DESIGNER 1: Oh, right.
DESIGNER 3: Does this even make sense? Isn’t a time-travel set going to be needlessly complex?
DESIGNER 1: What’s the matter, Designer 3? . . . Chicken?
DESIGNER 3: What did you say? *flips table* Let’s make that set!
Yes, card-based tabletop gaming friends, Magic once again proves that if they really like an idea, then by hook or crook, they’re going to make it happen. I think time-travel fantasy is interesting, no doubt! Where I’m dubious is in, well . . . the prerelease event’s pomp and circumstance.
The Game Beside the Game
At every prerelease event for a while now (where you can play with the cards in a Sealed Deck tournament about a week before they go on sale), there’s been some kind of gimmick, and it’s getting extremely old.
I was practically in love with the Greek Myth flavor of the last block of sets, Theros, but I really didn’t care to Face the Hydra, Forge a Godslayer, or whatever other peripheral nonsense they came up with to do between rounds.
Everyone wants to win more stuff. So you sigh and pay attention.
Having to pay attention to “achievements” is way too much like modern video games for my taste. I’m here for the art, the flavor, the strategy, the camraderie – not to rack up phantom bonuses that have very little to do with how I play, or for which I would have to alter the way I play. These side events are not mandatory, but . . . you can win more stuff if you participate. Everyone wants to win more stuff. So you sigh and pay attention.
In Fate Reforged, the gimmick is that the players have to revive a main character of the plot – Ugin, the Spirit Dragon – over a thousand years in the past. Here’s how:
To revive Ugin, there are three stages: activate the shard, create the cocoon, and then the final step of ultimately reviving Ugin. Similarly, this Prerelease activity has three stages—and the centerpiece transforms at each stage!
I guess someone might find that enticing, but I’m just trying to play with all my new cards and figure out what they do. I’ll let Sarkhan Vol, the planeswalker in the story, mess around with the story. I just want to play my favorite game.
The prizes are random packs of cards featuring alternate art – visions of the world if Ugin had never died all those years ago. The idea is that dragons were destroyed on Tarkir, but with Ugin still around, the other dragons would have survived. Maybe they form an anti-defamation league or something. At any rate, you don’t get these until you complete the proper number of achievements.
Well, all right, they do stipulate that if you don’t unlock every achievement, you just open the whole thing at the end of the event. But, it really just seems like a distraction.
This all went on this weekend, so some of you will have experienced it. If you dug the side event, let me know! For everyone else, I just wanted to kind of paint the picture of how these types of events work lately.
But How Does It Play?
I’m glad I asked! That’s a much nicer topic.
Tarkir, the world of Fate Reforged, is ruled by five clans, each based around five different types of dragons/draconic qualities. Each one has a different trademark ability, and then there’s another that’s a product of all dragons and that all the clans can access. In this set, the abilities Raid, Outlast, and Morph from Khans of Tarkir have been replaced by the more arguably aggressive Dash, Bolster, and Manifest. In short, Dash lets you play a creature for cheap from your hand, but you have to return it at end of turn (it gets to attack) – Bolster boosts your weakest (lowest toughness) creature and Manifest lets you peel cards from your library (and a few other places) and turn them into face-down creatures.
On the other side, we’re getting more cards with Prowess (noncreature spells make your creatures bigger), Delve (use the graveyard as a resource to cast spells), and Ferocious (creatures with power 4+ matter to the spell). Decks already focused on these mechanics are getting some potential new tricks.
There’s also more room to shift colors in this set; Fate Reforged uses some hybrid mana costs for multicolor cards, which let you leave a color out if your deck just doesn’t work with it. The types of decks you see at shops now are more creative than they’ve been in a while (fewer carbon-copied Netdecks), but the splash of hybrid mana and its wealth of options should breathe even more new life into the scene. That’s awesome for home-brewers, who aren’t interested in shelling out (and losing an investment) for the latest “perfect” fly-by-night deck to win with.
There are a handful of exciting new cards. My personal favorite is Soulfire Grand Master, which lets you reuse and get more life out of your Instants and Sorceries (and she’s honestly just gorgeous). Overall, this set seems to be a solid addition to the Standard environment, without many unique and never-before-seen functionality. You can check out the full, visual card list here.
I severely hope this time-travel story doesn’t herald a series of “alternate timeline” sets.
But Back to the Past
I severely hope this time-travel story doesn’t herald a series of “alternate timeline” sets. Planeswalkers are immortal until they are killed, and depending on how they deal with Ugin’s return, his being alive might affect the history of all the sets we know. Reboots are annoying in pretty-much every realm (Comic books come sharply to mind), and I’m hoping that we’re not going to see the story reset with a series of “alternate” versions of old sets.
Ugin is also one of the three planeswalkers who fought and locked away (for a while) one of Magic’s main villains: The Eldrazi. The Tarkir block seems to be setting up for their return with cards that reference high mana costs and colorlessness, both of which are Eldrazi hallmarks. Add in the return of Ugin himself, and I’m betting the next block and story involves Ugin chasing these monstrous, Cthulhu-like monster-gods down and stopping them once again.
And That’s That.
The gist of all of this is that the new Magic set is stretching a bit beyond what we’re used to in story, but not too far beyond its means in the actual gameplay. If you liked Khans of Tarkir, you’re getting some nice pieces to fit with it. If you were hoping that this foray into another time would drastically alter the gameplay, well… I’m afraid not yet. The next set, Dragons of Tarkir, has been said to branch off of the mechanical considerations of Fate Reforged, as well. Here’s hoping that the planning they’ve put in proves to have been worth it, in this set and beyond.
Fate Reforged officially goes on sale January 23.